U.N. treaty would be first ever to protect ecosystems in international waters from exploitation

The United Nations is preparing to take a stand in defense of international waters to protect ecosystems from exploitation by crafting a treaty to regulate how nations exploit the resources found in parts of the ocean not under anyone’s jurisdiction.

As climate change, pollution and over-fishing continue to negatively impact ocean ecosystems, the world is finally coming together to address the issue.

Earlier this month, United Nations delegates met in New York to debate a treaty that would add to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea by creating mechanisms to regulate exploitation of food and other resources while designating conservation areas to protect vulnerable plants and animal species critical to the environment and our own survival.

According to the United Nations:

Delegates elaborating the terms of a new high seas treaty under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea hailed expanding convergence on many of that instrument’s substantive elements, as the Intergovernmental Conference tasked with drafting a legally-binding instrument on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity concluded its second session today.

The representative of the European Union emphasized that “the world is counting on us to deliver” a new treaty governing areas of the ocean that lie beyond national jurisdiction by the 2020 deadline. “It is high time to begin working on a draft treaty text,” he said, noting that while the Conference’s current format has allowed for the articulation of positions, it is not conducive to promoting fully fledged negotiations. Voicing strong support for the adoption of a new, text-based format — which will likely make parallel negotiations inevitable — he called for continued transparency, the ongoing participation of civil society and the dissemination of relevant information well in advance.

The next meetings are scheduled to take place in August, but in the meantime, scientists are creating modeling tools to present to the delegates to help them in their task.

Science Magazine reports:

As delegates met this week at U.N. headquarters in New York City to hash out the details, marine scientists moved to influence the outcome. One research group unveiled the results of a global mapping effort that envisions expansive new marine reserves to protect key high-seas ecosystems. Other teams are working on maps of their own using powerful modeling tools to weigh a reserve’s potential for achieving key conservation goals, such as protecting important feeding grounds or helping sea life adapt to warming seas, against its economic costs.

It’s an opportunity many scientists have been anticipating.

“The policy opportunity this represents is much rarer than once in a lifetime,” University of California marine ecologist Douglas McCauley said. “Nations are asking how we should protect two-thirds of the world’s oceans. It’s the first time in human history that this has ever been asked.”

The research teams are proposing to cover up to 30 percent of the world’s oceans under the treaty, but presented a proposal to cover 50 percent using data to identify which zones should be protected through conservation.

The team that showed off its handiwork this week presented two possible reserve networks, one covering 30% of international waters, the other 50%. To create the maps, researchers from several universities, funded by the conservation group Greenpeace, combined biological data, such as the distribution of fish, sharks, and whales, with oceanographic information, such as the locations of seamounts, trenches, and hydrothermal vents. They identified ocean currents, potential mining areas, and biologically productive zones where deep, cold waters rise to the surface. And they located places where ocean temperatures hold steady most of the year—potential safe havens from global warming—as well as areas with large temperature fluctuations, which might harbor creatures preadapted to cope with warming.

Clearly, with rising ocean temperatures and the increasing catastrophe of over-fishing and deep sea mining and oil drilling , action needs to be taken immediately before it’s too late. That is, if it isn’t already too late.

“Given how fast species have declined in the last 20 years, it will be a catastrophe if we can’t capitalize on this momentum,” University of York in the United Kingdom marine biologist Callum Roberts warned.

Even if a treaty is passed, there’s no guarantee signatory nations will abide by it. The United States under President Donald Trump and a Republican Senate would likely refuse to even sign it, much less ratify it. And if the United States won’t do it, many other nations could follow suit and the treaty would be toothless.

However, it’s a promising step in the right direction that could find support from the next president and a new Senate majority since a treaty likely won’t be hammered out until after the 2020 Election.

Until then, we just have to hope the rest of the world will lead the way forward so that future generations can enjoy the majesty of our oceans and the ecosystems they support.

Featured Image: Wikimedia

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Stephen D. Foster Jr.

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